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Most cases of gallstones do not cause any symptoms.

But if a gallstone blocks one of the bile ducts, it can cause sudden, severe pain around your tummy. The medical name for this is biliary colic.

Other symptoms may develop. This can happen if the blockage is more severe or develops in another part of the digestive system.

Abdominal pain (biliary colic)

Gallstones can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain (tummy pain). This pain usually lasts 1 to 5 hours. But it can sometimes last just a few minutes.

The pain can be felt:

  • in the centre of your tummy
  • just under the ribs on your right-handside – it may spread from here to your side or shoulder blade

The pain is constant and isn't relieved when you go to the toilet, pass wind or are sick. It's sometimes triggered by eating fatty foods. But it may happen at any time of day. It may also wake you up during the night.

Biliary colic doesn't happen often. After an episode of pain, it may be several weeks or months before you experience another episode.

Some people also have times where they sweat a lot and feel sick or vomit.

When gallstones cause episodes of biliary colic, there is a name for it. It is known as 'uncomplicated gallstone disease'.

Other symptoms

In a small number of people, gallstones can cause more serious problems. This can happen if the gallstones block the flow of bile for longer periods. It can also happen if they move into other organs (such as the pancreas or small bowel).

If this happens, you may develop:

  • a high temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or above
  • more constant pain
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itchy skin
  • diarrhoea
  • chills or shivering attacks
  • confusion
  • a loss of appetite

Doctors call this more severe condition 'complicated gallstone disease'.

Read more about the complications of gallstones

See your GP

If you think you may be experiencing biliary colic, see your GP.

Call your GP immediately for advice if you develop:

  • jaundice
  • abdominal pain lasting longer than 8 hours
  • a high temperature and chills
  • tummy pain so intense that you can not relieve it

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

page last reviewed: 22/12/2020
next review due: 22/12/2023

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.